Johannesburg — A diplomatic battle has erupted between Angola's Soviet-supported government and US-backed rebels, amid signs neither side is close to military victory after 12 years of civil war. Key to the outcome will be decisions taken thousands of miles away: in the United States and the Soviet Union; Western Europe and Cuba; and South Africa. The Cubans have well over 30,000 troops and aid personnel backing the government in Angola, along with several thousand Soviet officers and advisers. South Africa, until a US-move last year to provide covert backing, has been the key outside patron of the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
Visits to the Angolan capital of Luanda and to rebel territory suggest both sides are feeling the effects of their escalating war of attrition. UNITA ambushes, land mines, and bomb attacks have disrupted farming and transportation in large areas of Angola and sent refugees pouring into the already overtaxed capital. Widespread malnutrition, say foreign aid officers in Luanda, threatens to become widespread hunger, even starvation.
UNITA has been unable to win control of ground outside the forlorn southeast of the country it has held for some years, to threaten major cities, or otherwise force Luanda to consider negotiating with a group it dismisses as ``terrorists.''
In the latest and fiercest of their annual dry-season showdowns, neither side seems to count on definitively defeating the other. Yet, each hopes to emerge with enough of a battlefield edge to gain outside support for a political settlement on its own terms.
Angolan President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos has spent much of the present battle season on a diplomatic swing through West Europe. He also recently visited Cuba. Afterward, a joint communiqu'e said he and Havana would ``make their common position more flexible'' on a Cuban withdrawal. The implication was that a speedier pullout might be possible, as part of longstanding US efforts to mediate a regional compromise that would also lead to withdrawal of South African forces from neighboring Nambia. Luanda's hope is to enlist Western help in choking off outside military support for UNITA as part of such a deal.
UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi has spent the past few months on the battlefield,the bushland of southeast Angola. His hope, conveyed to reporters near the front, is to batter enough Angolan Army units, destroy or capture enough Soviet-made weaponry and materiel to descredit Mr. dos Santos's diplomatic strategy. Mr. Savimbi wants to clearly demonstrate there can be no stability in Angola unless Luanda negotiates with UNITA and ultimately welcomes it into a coalition regime.
Savimbi said he foresaw no ``military solution'' to the overall question of Angola's future. His hope was for a significant UNITA victory in the current fighting, figuring this could be parlayed into international pressure on dos Santos to negotiate with UNITA.
So far, the contest for political advantage seems as stalemated as the military picture. Washington and Pretoria have reiterated their commitment to UNITA, and indicated that even a ``more flexible'' Cuban withdrawal is unacceptable unless it is total. The reported involvement of Soviet officers in the latest fighting, meanwhile, suggests Angola's East Bloc allies remain equally firm.
But US mediator, assistant secretary of African affairs, Chester Crocker resumed talks in Luanda in the wake of the new Angolan-Cuban initiative, weeks after a round of talks he had called ``a waste of time.'' Savimbi told reporters he was concerned this could foreshadow a shift in the diplomatic picture. He also voiced concern over dos Santos's European tour, charging only one of the leaders with whom dos Santos met - Portugal's - put in a word for talks with UNITA. Too, Savimbi seems concerned he might be a loser in any overall thaw in superpower ties amid moves toward a nuclear arms pact.